Some may try, but there is little doubt that the two teams playing in the BCS Championship Game tonight in Arizona - Auburn and Oregon - are the two best teams in college football. Tonight they get to settle who is best of all, and who will win the BCS National Championship Game. It's the first time the two teams have ever met.
Gene Chizik's Tigers have had a magical season thanks in large part to the play of their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. Under the guidance of Chizik on the sidelines and All-American Cam Newton under center, Auburn went undefeated on the year, although it wasn't always easy. The team had tight matchups with Clemson early on (27-24 in overtime) and defending national champion Alabama late in the season (28-27) and despite off-the-field distractions surrounding Newton down the stretch, the team capped things off with a rout of South Carolina (56-17) in the SEC Championship Game, setting up this monumental showdown with Oregon.
The Tigers have only one national title to their credit and that came back in 1957. This marks the 36th all-time bowl game for Auburn and its second BCS bowl appearance. The team is an impressive 20-13-2 in postseason affairs and won its last three bowl games, including a 38-35 overtime thriller against Northwestern in last year's Outback Bowl.
Chip Kelly's Ducks also navigated their season unscathed and outside of a 15-13 victory over California in mid-November, Oregon destroyed the competition, winning all other 11 games by double figures. The team captured its second straight Pac-10 title and became the first team in conference history to win nine league games.
Oregon is playing in its third BCS bowl game, winning the 2002 Fiesta Bowl (38-16 over Colorado) and losing last year's Rose Bowl (26-17 to Ohio State). The team is 9-14 in 23 previous postseason matchups and is making its sixth straight bowl appearance overall.
While Auburn would have an offensive advantage against most teams in the nation, Oregon isn't one of them. The Ducks have taken offensive proficiency to new heights in 2010, leading the nation in scoring (49.3 ppg) and total offense (537.5 ypg), while ranking fourth in rushing (303.8 ypg).
It is Oregon's team speed that presents the most problems for the opposition and it starts with Consensus First-Team All-American LaMichael James. The sophomore standout is simply as good as it gets at the tailback position, finishing as the leading rusher in the country (152.9 ypg). He amassed 1,682 yards on the season with 21 TDs and did so despite sitting out the season- opener.
Kenjon Barner is James' understudy in the backfield, but he is electric as well, racking up 519 yards and six TDs on limited carries (80).
Quarterback Darron Thomas has been impressive under center, as both a passer (2,518 yards, 28 TDs) and a runner (492 yards, five TDs). It certainly helps to have players like James taking the pressure off with his rushing skills, as well as WR Jeff Maehl providing a reliable target downfield. Maehl has had a huge senior season, earning All-Pac-10 honors with 68 catches, for 943 yards and 12 TDs.
The team has also excelled elsewhere, with the offensive line allowing a mere eight sacks on the season, while special teams play has been just that in Eugene, headlined by Consensus All-American returner Cliff Harris, who has four punt returns for scores in 2010.
Overall speed is not limited to the offensive side of the football for Oregon, as the defense has also enjoyed a mismatch in that regard. As a result, the Ducks have amassed a whopping 35 forced turnovers and 31 sacks.
Standouts on this side of the football for Oregon start in the middle with linebackers Casey Matthews (team-high 73 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, three INTs and three fumble recoveries) and Spencer Paysinger (68 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, one fumble recovery). The secondary is as good as it gets, with starters Talmadge Jackson (67 tackles, two INTs), John Boyett (67 tackles, five INTs), Cliff Harris (30 tackles, five INTs) and Eddie Pleasant (63 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries) all making big plays this year. Defensive end Kenny Rowe (38 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks) headlines the play along the frontline.
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn isn't taking Oregon's defense lightly.
"I think they're all extremely quick and they're extremely fast. When you watch them, they play a lot of people, but every snap they play hard. I mean they play real hard, and that's really what stands out. They're very impressive to watch."
The Tigers put up some gaudy offensive numbers this season, ranking among the nation's elite teams in scoring (fourth at 42.7 ppg), rushing (fifth at 287.2 ypg) and total offense (seventh at 497.7 ypg).
Of course, Newton was the reason for most of that, as the junior QB rushed for an SEC quarterback record 1,409 yards and 20 TDs, while throwing for 2,589 yards and 28 more scores. With the stellar campaign, Newton joined Pat Sullivan (1971) and Bo Jackson (1985) as Auburn's Heisman winners.
Newton was the catalyst for the offense, but he did share the spotlight on occasion. Tailbacks Michael Dyer (950 yards, five TDs) and Onterio McCalebb (763 yards, nine TDs) have been nice complements on the ground, while wideouts Darvin Adams (48 receptions, 909 yards, seven TDs), Terrell Zachery (37 receptions, 557 yards, four TDs) and Emory Blake (29 receptions, 500 yards, seven TDs) have been constant sources of production down the field.
Newton hopes the team can maintain its balanced attack even if things start to lean in Oregon's favor early on.
"I think Oregon puts a lot of pressure on the opposing team off the mere fact that they have an explosive offense, so they are going to put up points. And while watching film, you kind of sense that their offense puts pressure on the opposing offense to want them to get their game plan going into the game. You go from a team in the first quarter trying to be balanced to the second quarter and third quarter just trying to keep up with their offense. Then the game gets really out of hand after that. You have to be balanced and stick to the game plan playing this team."
The Auburn defense has taken a backseat to the offense this season and while the numbers are modest at best, it doesn't tell the entire story. The team is giving up 24.5 ppg and has struggled at times against the pass (250.5 ypg), but that has a lot to do with the fact that opponents are constantly playing catchup and find themselves abandoning the run early on. However, throwing the ball against the Tigers comes at a price, as the team racked up an impressive 33 sacks on the season.
Leading the charge up front is 6-5, 300-pound junior tackle Nick Fairley. This year's Lombardi Award winner, Fairley is the best at his position in the country, racking up 55 tackles, 21.0 TFLs and 10.5 sacks in the middle of the line, en route to All-American honors. Defensive end Antoine Carter (31 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) certainly benefited from the play of Fairley inside. Other defensive players of note include senior LB Josh Bynes (team- high 71 tackles, 5.5 TFls, one sack, three INTs) and senior safety Zac Etheridge (66 tackles, two INTs, one fumble recovery).
The pace of this game is going to be something to watch and a key factor according to Malzahn
"Of course, we think pace is a great advantage in college football, and the two teams that are playing, obviously you can see the advantage. That's a big part of what we do. We try to mentally and physically wear down the defense. That's really helped us. It's been a big part of why we're here."
Its hard to imagine a better matchup to cap off a superior college football season. This one may come down to the wire and although there are stars on both sides of the football, the brightest lines up under center for the Tigers.